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The Mountain Goats - In League With Dragons Music Album Reviews

John Darnielle explores the humanity of wizards, sports legends, Ozzy Osbourne, and other folk heroes and beacons of hope.
“Old wizards and old athletes are the same,” John Darnielle said during a Facebook live stream at the headquarters of Wizards of the Coast, the game company that owns Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons. He was there to announce the latest record from the Mountain Goats, In League With Dragons, and his rhetoric was appropriately fanciful: “They were once magic,” he offered by way of explanation.

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Sudan Archives - Sink EP Music Album Reviews

Sudan Archives - Sink EP Music Album Reviews

The genre-defying violinist levels up as a songwriter on an EP of experimental pop and R&B that explodes conventional musical logic with disarming ease.

Sudan Archives is a 24-year-old violinist with “too much swag,” as she once sang, but that proportion is serving her quite well, actually. Using little more than strings, a looper, and electronic beats and shimmer, Sudan transposes the bounce and swing of R&B and hip-hop onto a fantastically original sound that could only exist now. She has cited as an influence the late, defiant Cameroon composer and ethnomusicologist Francis Bebey, who made a similar hybrid of organic and electronic African sounds in the late 1970s and once told an interviewer, “The artistic challenge is to use the tools of Western progress and [communicate] messages of the African heritage.” Sudan steps up.

The warmth and poise of Sink, her second EP on Stones Throw, bears out her singular confluence of interests and experience—her deep psychic archive. Nearly all of its six tracks contain traces of the North African one-stringed fiddle players who inspire her, lending her work an inviting minimalism. Sudan’s voice moves between a smooth R&B breeze and the blunted real talk of subtle raps. Her lucid singing roots back to the teen pop duo she once had with her twin sister, and, at times, the celestial grooves of Sink evoke “Queen Kunta”—her brilliant 2016 cover of Kendrick Lamar’s “King Kunta.” Another of Sudan’s stated influences is the Sufi multi-instrumentalist and scholar Asim Gorashi, a world whistling champion known for interpreting Mozart with his lungs and lips. Sudan’s own approach similarly explodes conventional musical logic with a disarming ease: She rethinks the possibilities of her classical instrument, employing the same ingenuity Dorothy Ashby brought to harp and Arthur Russell to cello. She accomplishes the rare feat of honoring tradition while remaining unbeholden to genre.

Beyond this compositional prowess, Sudan levels up as a songwriter on Sink. Her lyrics can be elegant or biting, but they’re always grounding and purposeful. The EP’s brightest point, “Nont for Sale,” opens with the mic-dropping kiss-off, “You only call me when you need something,” as her voice glides over her own effervescent pizzicato. About halfway through, a faint rattle kicks in, like a pencil sketch of a trap beat. “Nont for Sale” is a song of personal empowerment that suddenly flips to become a comment on colonialism—“This is my land, nont for sale”—inspired by a hand-painted sign she saw on a hillside during a recent trip to Ghana (where she filmed a video for 2017’s “Come Meh Way”). “Beautiful Mistake,” an ode to the glorious and inevitable imperfections inherent in being human, pivots on some anti-authoritarian swagger: “They don’t know/They just fuckin’ old people tryin’ to steal all your gold.” Sudan’s words are as sharp as a fingersnap. Her conviction is contagious. And despite the EP’s many moving parts, Sink always finds space; never cluttered, it stands as a cosmic beacon of composure.

Sudan is a musician at the crossroads of multiple dualities: an experimenter with her own vision of pop music, an artist uncovering histories while directly in conversation with her own time. Sink feels refreshingly present, and never more than when she spells out that engagement herself: “My strings propagate/Through space and time/Here and there/At the same time,” she unspools over “Nont for Sale,” with its cloud of bass. “This is my seat, can’t ya tell?” Recently, when a journalist asked Sudan how it felt to make such self-contained music, she said, “I just feel like an African queen, like I’m ruling the world… I can make any sound I want, any world I want, and no one can steer me another way.” Sink is a 19-minute promise that, song by song, her world is getting bigger.

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